The EU’s Farm to Fork Strategy

The European Commission’s Farm to Fork (F2F) Strategy of 2020, a key element of the EU Green Deal, was designed to be a transformative journey to reshape food systems in the face of global crises like climate change, resource scarcity, and a growing world population. A comprehensive plan that sought to make fair, healthy, and eco-friendly food systems in Europe, the strategy recognizes that food production, distribution, consumption, and management are deeply interconnected. By setting targets for reducing the use of pesticides, antibiotics, and fertilizers, as well as promoting organic farming practices, the F2F Strategy aims to mitigate any environmental impact on agriculture.

One of the key components of the F2F Strategy is to identify and promote Candidates for Substitution (CfS) to address the challenges associated with traditional agricultural practices. The goal is to reduce the use of chemical pesticides by 50% by 2030. This involves encouraging the adoption of integrated pest management (IPM), promoting biological control methods, and investing in R&I to develop alternative pest control strategies. By doing so, the EU aims to protect biodiversity, reduce water, and soil pollution, and ensure a healthier environment for both consumers and producers.

 

What are candidates for substitution (CfS)?

The concept of Candidates for Substitution (CfS) plays a pivotal role in the F2F Strategy. CfS are identified as substances or practices that can replace hazardous chemicals, including pesticides and fertilizers, with safer and more sustainable alternatives. This approach aligns with the EU’s commitment to fostering innovation, endorsing circular economy principles, and safeguarding human health and the environment.

Pesticides are one of the key areas of focus for substitution. The EU aims to phase out and substitute the most harmful pesticides and promote the use of alternative methods, such as biopesticides and precision farming techniques. This shift not only protects ecosystems but also reduces the risk of pesticide residues in food.

 

How successful is Integrated Pest Management (IPM)?

IPM is a comprehensive approach aimed at significantly reducing the reliance on conventional pesticides in agricultural practices. The primary goal is to encourage the adoption of sustainable and environmentally friendly pest control strategies. Since 2014, IPM has been mandated for farmers within the EU, as outlined in Directive 2009/128/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 21 October 2009 establishing a framework for Community action to achieve the sustainable use of pesticides. This directive set the stage for the implementation of IPM as a legal requirement, emphasizing the need for a holistic and integrated approach to pest control.

However, the execution of IPM has faced considerable challenges, which has made it difficult to achieve its objectives. One critical issue lies in the absence of clear targets, measures, and timetables to guide farmers in the implementation of IPM practices. Without specific and measurable goals, farmers may struggle to understand the expectations and lack the necessary guidance to transition effectively from traditional chemical pesticide use to integrated pest management strategies.

The lack of a well-defined framework has hindered the market availability of biological solutions, which are a key component of IPM. While the intention was to stimulate the use of alternative, less harmful methods, the absence of clear directives has led to a slow adoption of these biological solutions. In essence, IPM has not yet lived up to its potential. This stems from the challenge of translating its theoretical framework into practical, actionable steps for farmers, resulting in a gap between intention and implementation.

 

Plant protection products (PPPs) vs. Pesticides

PPPs specifically fall under the umbrella of pesticides and serve the primary purpose of safeguarding crops or other beneficial plants. Widely employed in agriculture, these products also find applications in forestry, horticulture, amenity areas, and domestic gardens. A plant protection product typically contains at least one active substance. An active substance has various functions, ranging from protecting plants or plant products against pests and diseases before or after harvest, influencing the life processes of plants (excluding nutrients), preserving plant products, to destroying or preventing the growth of undesired plants or plant parts. Additionally, these products may incorporate other components like safeners and synergists. The authorization and oversight of plant protection products within the EU are carried out by individual Member States, which are responsible for ensuring compliance with EU regulations in their respective territories.

The distinction between pesticides and PPPs lies in their scope and application. Pesticides serve as a broad category encompassing substances designed to prevent, control, or eliminate harmful organisms (‘pests’) and diseases. This includes a wide range of formulations such as herbicides, fungicides, insecticides, acaricides, nematicides, molluscicides, growth regulators, repellents, rodenticides, and biocides. Pesticides, therefore, have a comprehensive application that extends beyond plant protection to include various non-plant or non-crop uses, such as controlling pests in households, industrial settings, or other environments.

An Active Substance refers to any chemical, plant extract, pheromone, or micro-organism (including viruses) that exhibits effects on ‘pests’ or on plants, plant parts, or plant products. In the European Union, prior to being employed in a plant protection product, an active substance must receive approval from the European Commission. The approval process involves a thorough assessment and peer-review conducted by Member States and the European Food Safety Authority, leading to a decision on whether the substance is approved for use.

On the other hand, plant protection products (PPPs) represent a specific subset of pesticides, primarily intended for safeguarding crops or beneficial plants. While PPPs include many of the same formulations as pesticides, they are tailored for use in agriculture, forestry, horticulture, amenity areas, and home gardens. PPPs contain at least one active substance and serve functions like protecting plants against pests and diseases, influencing plant life processes, preserving plant products, or preventing the growth of undesirable plants or plant parts.

The term ‘pesticide’ is often used interchangeably with ‘plant protection product,’ but it’s important to recognize that pesticide is the broader term, covering not only plant-related applications but also non-plant uses like biocides in various contexts.

Next steps for the EU’s F2F Strategy

While the F2F Strategy and the promotion of CfS represent significant strides towards a more sustainable and resilient food system, challenges persist. Resistance to change, economic considerations, and the need for extensive research and development in alternative practices pose hurdles to swift implementation.

The effective enforcement of the Sustainable Use of PPPs Regulation (SUR) is vital for the realization of the objectives outlined in the EU’s F2F and Biodiversity Strategies, along with the Zero Pollution Action Plan. It could also play a pivotal role in fulfilling the pesticide reduction goals established in the EU Green Deal. The revision of the Directive on the Sustainable Use of Pesticides (SUD) should result in a robust reform of the SUR, representing a significant stride towards creating an environment free from harmful chemicals. This reform could be crucial for safeguarding the environment, fostering resilient farming systems, enhancing food production, and preparing for present and future challenges of climate change, food security and human health.

The growing apprehensions of the European Commission are accentuated by the recent surge in protests across Europe, driven mainly by discontent arising from economic difficulties, regulatory policies, and environmental initiatives. Within the European Union, farmers are facing challenges such as rising energy, fertilizer, and transport costs, compounded by the repercussions of Russia’s conflict in Ukraine. Governments, aiming to alleviate the impact of inflation-driven food price increases on consumers, have strained relations with farmers in the process. Eurostat data reveals a significant decline in agricultural product prices, averaging nearly 9% between the third quarter of 2022 and the corresponding period in 2023, intensifying the financial hardships for farmers.

The protests are further complicated by regional issues, such as France’s decision to phase out a tax break for farmers on diesel fuel and concerns about unfair competition due to cheap imports. Additionally, the effects of climate change, characterized by extreme weather events, pose additional hurdles to production. The European Green Deal, with its ambitious environmental goals, has become a focal point of tension, with farmers advocating for delays in regulations and resisting measures like carbon taxes, pesticide bans, and nitrogen emission restrictions. This has impeded the implementation of the Farm to Fork (F2F) strategy, designed to promote sustainable farming, as each European country, including Germany, the Netherlands, and Poland, grapples with its distinct set of resource concerns. This complex landscape of challenges contributes to the widespread nature of the chaos whilst threatening to sway the F2F Strategy.

The EU Commission still promises validity of the F2F policy objectives along with the modalities to achieve them being under constant review.

The F2F, with its focus on CfS, exemplifies the EU’s commitment to building a resilient and sustainable food system. By addressing the environmental and health challenges associated with the use of chemical pesticides, the strategy aims to strike a balance between feeding a growing population and preserving the planet for future generations. The EU must salvage what is left of the F2F strategy while meeting the demands of its farmers. If it succeeds in this undertaking, it could emerge as a global front runner in leading a major shift towards more sustainable and future-proof food systems.

How does SAGROPIA contribute to the F2F Strategy?

The F2F Strategy and SUR aims safe and secure food systems and reduced use of chemical pesticide reduction in Europe. The Horizon Europe project SAGROPIA is dedicated to validating this objective with the potential for substituting specific active substances outlined in Regulation (EC) No 1107/2009, identified as CfS. This will be achieved by showcasing the effective utilization of alternative, predominantly low-risk pesticides. With a vision to revolutionize European agriculture, the project focuses on the development of 13 biobased and low-risk pesticides tailored for key “candidates for substitution” (CfS), specifically targeting potato and sugar-beet crops. SAGROPIA advocates for integrated pest management as part of sustainable practices, aiming to achieve a substantial 50% reduction in the utilization of chemical pesticides. Emphasizing sustainability as a top priority, the initiative strives to minimize adverse impacts on natural resources and the environment.